This Week In My Classes: Subversive Women

The March madness continues – indeed, I’ve been wondering how I managed not just to read but also to blog about actual books more than once last week. I felt quite on top of things for a bit, but two sets of papers have just come in, more paper proposals are incoming even as I write, and by Friday I’ll have another set of tests to mark … whew! The trick is just to take it one item at a time, and to take regular breaks for tea and treats. 🙂

When I’m not marking, I’m still prepping and teaching, of course, which this week has meant finally beginning the unit on romance in Pulp Fiction. The assigned readings for Monday–Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding” and an excerpt from Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels giving Loretta Chase’s “rules” for the genre–were chosen to highlight expectations and conventions associated with romance novels; I also assigned Jennifer Crusie’s “Defeating the Critics” as a useful precis of some of the oft-heard criticisms of romance and how they might be responded to. We haven’t had a chance to discuss this material yet, as I typically start a new unit with an overview lecture to provide some historical background, critical contexts, and relevant vocabulary.

In this case that meant, among other things, talking about what historical or conceptual parameters we might use to define “romance fiction,” from its connections to the 19th-century marriage plot novel (with some discussion of whether Jane Austen is a romance novelist) to the genre requirements identified by the RWA. With an eye to complicating generalizations about the genre as a whole, I also outlined some of the various subgenres, from Regency to paranormal. While I emphasized the similarities between romance and the other genres we’ve studied–all popular forms not widely considered “literary,” all strongly governed by recognizable tropes and a relationship of reciprocal knowingness between authors and readers, etc.–I went on to talk about ways romance is different, in its extraordinary popularity and in both the degree and the kind of contempt it provokes. (I actually quoted a bit from William Giraldi’s screed, about how romance is “uniformly awful and awfully uniform,” to show them I wasn’t exaggerating.) Along with suggestions about the way the reception and perception of romance is gendered, I noted the powerful literary and cultural tradition of punishing women for their sexuality, against which recent romances in particular, with their emphasis on agency, consent, and mutual satisfaction, can be seen as empowering and subversive. That was a lot to cover even in a cursory way, and my hope is not that I gave anything like definitive accounts of or positions on these topics but that I laid out an array of ideas for us to draw on as we move into our specific readings, including Lord of Scoundrels.

In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve been finishing up Lady Audley’s Secret, which can of course be read as utterly hostile to sexually powerful women — or as a subversive challenge to a world that condemns them for using the only power patriarchy allows them. I can never decide which of the two I think it is, which I have come to consider a sign of Braddon’s (relative) weakness as a novelist: she is a great story-teller, but I’m never convinced, by the end of Lady Audley’s Secret, that she herself has completed sorted out the victim / villain alternatives for her heroine. Is Lucy’s fate well and truly justified (because she is both ruthless and shockingly free of remorse), or is she herself justified in the drastic steps she took, because she was fighting for her survival against an implacable man and a pitiless system? It’s possible that the very ambiguity of the ending is the point: it opens up disquieting possibilities in both directions, leaving us to puzzle out where our own politics or moral principles take us. It is certainly a very entertaining novel, and in that respect at least I think it is also well-timed for this class at this overloaded time of term: discussions have actually been livelier than usual! That said, we start on Tess of the d’Urbervilles next week, which is bound to bring us all down. It’s not my fault: the course is called “19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy.” If you know an uplifting Hardy novel I could sub in for Tess or Jude, do let me know.

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3 Responses to This Week In My Classes: Subversive Women

  1. lawless says:

    Can’t Lucy be both a rebel against an unfair and terrible system and a terrible person? I don’t disagree with your assessment of Braddon as a novelist (for one thing, the writing is so very uneven), but if one wanted to try to make sense of Lucy, she could be viewed as someone who was tipped over into madness or villainy by societal constraints.

    Perhaps, though, the ambiguity is meant to signal that she is too complex and complicated to make complete sense of. Or that Braddon didn’t quite know what to do with her and copped out by making her confess absolute villainy in the end in an apparent attempt to at least appear remorseful (if I remember correctly).

    Collins’ Lydia Gwilt of Armadale is a more successful attempt at portraying a capable woman thwarted by society, but her very capability tells against her in some ways. We are never left uncertain about her manipulations, and part of the joy of reading the book is to see the how well she plays other people.

  2. Bookertalk says:

    An uplifting Hardy novel? I’ve drawn a blank on that sorry….

  3. AW says:

    I just found this blog, so apologies for this very, very late comment!

    I think The Hand of Ethelberta is singularly free of doom and gloom for a Hardy novel. The characters aren’t prone to miring themselves in despair or lashing out at everybody around them, and nobody dies! It’s a rather hard slog at times, but still interesting. The eponymous Ethelberta’s working-class family does their utmost to help her gain a place in the world, even concealing their true relationship in order to further her social advancement. However, Ethelberta at no point grows disdainful or ashamed of them; everybody just accepts it as something that must be done. Her family members are neither ruthless upstarts nor comic relief. They’re simply presented as people. They care for one another and work hard in their various trades. But the novel’s true heart is Ethelberta. She’s responsible, clear-eyed, artistically inclined, and, most of all, practical. She gives up a lover when she sees it is impossible for them to have a viable future together, but isn’t resentful about the situation. She’s under pressure to make an excellent marriage, but doesn’t want to pretend to be somebody she’s not. When she discovers her husband’s secret in true Victorian fashion, she simply tries to get herself in the best position for negotiating the future. She constantly forms and re-evaluates decisions, often on short notice, and while she makes mistakes, she has reasons for them. The novel ends with Ethelberta as the de facto head of her household, and everybody respects this. The other characters are also pretty refreshing. Ethelberta’s old lover is saddened by their parting, but he continues living his own life with his spinster sister. Even when the narrative led me to expect him to swoop in and save Ethelberta, it didn’t happen. He eventually marries Ethelberta’s younger sister, who isn’t as clever or confident as she is, yet is still presented as a human being in her own right, worthy of respect.

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